Last Christmas we raised money for a project supporting children’s well-being in the Kingdom of Bhutan together with you, the Runes of Magic community.
At the start of the year, Save the Children began implementing their projects with the 82,000 euros that we collected. We visited Bhutan in early November to see how our donations were being put to use:
Our flight from Bangkok set off for Paro across the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. The pilot deftly manoeuvred our Airbus 319, one of two owned by the royal airline Druk Air, through a narrow canyon. The wings almost grazed the mountainsides with each turn he made, but soon the colourfully painted half-timbered houses on the slopes came into view and we landed safely in the sunlit Paro valley near the path of a mighty mountain river.
We were in Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as the country is named in the local language.
Our driver, Dorji, who would be taking us through the peaks and valleys of the region, was waiting for us at the airport with a sign at the ready. After traversing winding roads and long valleys, we arrived in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, and checked into our hotel. From there, we headed over to the regional office of Save the Children, where the Bhutanese team were already waiting for us. They gave us a warm welcome and introduced us to the organisation and their projects.
The programmes funded by Frogster are primarily aimed at youth education and improving life skills such as understanding new media and technologies. Despite the country’s geographical isolation, the blessings of modern civilization such as televisions, computers, the Internet and mobile phones have been making headway in the country. Professionals and schoolchildren alike may still wear their country’s traditional colourful gowns, but they are faced with various influences from the western world and from their Asian neighbours, India, Japan, Korea and China. Thus, there are already some Internet cafes and game centres in Thimphu.
The team explained to us that one of the projects funded by Frogster is helping set up and run youth centres in the country. These centres offer small sporting and games facilities for everything from table tennis to chess, computer workstations with Internet access, libraries, and equipment for photocopying, laminating and binding printed materials. These centres also organise activities such as dancing, music making, field trips and courses. The centres also offer mentoring services. Adolescents in need can contact them by telephone. Three main topics dominate the work of the advice hotline: school performance and results, drug abuse and emotional problems within personal relationships.
Alongside face-to-face and telephone advice, Save the Children has also set up online advice which helps, amongst others, adolescents who are going abroad to study, mostly to India. After completing their studies, the majority of these students return to Bhutan, which has made raising its ‘Gross National Happiness’ a national priority.
So far, Save the Children has set up seven youth centres in the country, two of which are located in the capital city. As of 2010, 21,804 young people have used the centres. Two more are planned for 2013. All of the centres are officially supported by the education ministry through the Department of Youth and Sports, but they should soon be placed into the hands of the local authorities or run by the young people themselves.
Another project supported by Frogster involves bringing parents and children together to discuss adolescent issues in light of a rapidly modernising Bhutan. The School-Based Parent’s Education & Awareness Program (SPEA) has been running workshops in 138 schools in 20 districts in Bhutan, teaching parents how to deal with their children’s problems and crises, since its inception in 2000. So far this program has reached 13,426 parents, which represents 78.2% of all parents of schoolchildren in the country, meaning that it affects practically every young person in the whole of Bhutan. The Bhutanese government will take over the whole program after Save the Children phases out its funding in 2013.
Using the money from Frogster, Save the Children has also produced two youth advice magazines and has distributed these amongst the country’s schools. The Youth Digest covers current issues and answers typical questions from young people. Its readers are polled to find out which topics the next edition should cover, which are then included in the digest whenever possible. Furthermore, Ghaley, the leader of Save the Children Bhutan, aims to further raise the level of participation.
About 70% of the Bhutanese population rely on subsistence farming, particularly in the remote, rural areas of the Himalayan kingdom. The country also produces herbs and fruit for national and international consumption, including masses of chilli peppers, which can be seen drying out on the people’s roofs. Bhutan also boasts renewable energy in the form of water power. Sustainable tourism, such as trekking and climbing, and minerals are two more national assets.
After this crash course in regional studies, Ghaley accompanied us to a reception in the country’s education ministry. The director of the Department of Youth and Sports took the time to welcome us and explain his perspective on the collaborative projects together with some leading staff members. Here again, it was apparent that the organisations and agencies are completely outfitted with modern technical equipment: laptops, projectors and PowerPoint were the standard.
Director Chencho Dorji explained that Bhutan organises its resources in five-year plans. The current plan is to ensure that one hundred percent of the country’s adolescents have access to education – no easy task when it takes up to two days to reach some of the country’s isolated mountain regions by car. Meanwhile, the government has installed an Education Officer in every district, who coordinates education and further training in the region.
On Saturday, we finally got into the projects. The first stop on our schedule was a visit to a SPEA workshop held at the Babesa Middle Secondary School in Thimphu. Present were about twenty parents who hadn’t been able to participate in the previous workshops. The first two workshops at this school had each been attended by around thirty parents. The workshop we took part in started with group discussions of the typical problems that parents have with their children. Some of the issues brought up included disagreements about the appropriate amount of pocket money, conflicts between parents and their children, kids staying out too late and the influence of friends – problems that teenagers and parents face all over the world. In addition to the parents, a few selected teens from other families also participated in the event, sharing their representative accounts when called upon by the focal teacher, who was a very lively moderator.
Over the excellent and very spicy school lunch that was served to all participants, we had an opportunity to converse with our escorts, Parvati Sharma and Sonam Pelden from Save the Children Bhutan.
Next we visited one of the youth centres in the capital, Thimphu. As we arrived in the Chang Jiji youth centre, located in one of the many new residential areas of Thimphu, the basketball court was being put to good use. In the lecture room, a photographer from Singapore was holding a photography workshop for teenagers. The computers were also quite popular. Smaller computer games were a big hit, as was Facebook.
The small library is set in a side room, in which the wee ones were doing arts and crafts with a teacher. We had a lot of fun refreshing our basic origami skills and teaching the kids what we could remember. Along the walls of the youth centre, a series of photos attested regular activities and events such as scout camping trips, athletic competitions and music lessons. The centre’s management team was even able to get the support of well-known Bhutanese singers and actors for a number of workshops. Confident of the proper management and organisation of the youth centre and the active participation on the part of the kids, we then embarked on an extensive sight-seeing tour of Thimphu.
It led us from a gigantic, golden statue of Buddha on a mountainside, past the humble residences of the royal family, to some imposing monasteries, or ‘dzongs’, and finally to the national memorial, “Chorten”, a large stupa with several prayer wheels which was commissioned by the king’s mother upon the death of the third king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
Finally, we also took a little stroll through the city centre of Thimphu, which was vaguely reminiscent of an Alpine ski resort due to the half-timbered construction.
For Monday, the Save the Children team had organised a hike through the mountains to the Taktshang monastery, the national landmark perched atop a cliff at the edge of Paro hundreds of metres high. Its name means "Tiger’s Nest", referring to the legend of the origin of Buddhism in Bhutan, in which a spiritual leader flew in on the back of a winged tiger and landed on the mountain in order to spread the faith.
With the tour of this ancient site in the shadow of several snow-capped, six-thousand metre high mountains, our tour of Paro and our trip to the Land of the Thunder Dragon came to an end on a wonderfully sunny day.
We’d like to once again extend our gratitude to the players of Runes of Magic who helped us support this project in this breathtaking country. We hope you enjoyed our travel log, and we are already thinking about how to continue the projects in the future.